After spending just one day with the Hutterites of Liberty County, Montana, Jill Brody recalls she was “hooked.”
The educator and photographer learned of the reclusive ethnoreligious group while researching a book on ranch life in central Montana. Locals told her that if she wanted to see what good farming looked like, she ought to visit the Hutterites.
That advice would change the way she thought about life and inspire a portfolio of photos titled “Hidden in Plain Sight,” which captures the world within these small, ultra-traditional religious communes.
The Hutterites were not Brody’s first exposure to people from isolated rural areas. At a young age, she had traveled from New York to North Carolina to attend summer camp.
“There were all these nice Jewish kids from New York, and most of the counselors were from the Deep South,” she said. Many of them had limited education, which Brody said she and her youthful peers mistook for a lack of intelligence.
With age and experience, Brody came to realize that she had misjudged them and the wisdom and ingenuity demanded by rural life. “They were pretty amazing people,” she said.
Decades later, she found herself living and working among some other pretty amazing people in one of America’s most isolated communities.
The Hutterites are Anabaptists ― Christians who believe people should be baptized not as infants but only when they are old enough to confess their sins and choose baptism for themselves. They fled persecution in Austria during the Protestant Reformation and eventually ended up living across parts of North America’s Great Plains. According to National Geographic, there were roughly 40,000 Hutterites living in 480 colonies in the U.S. and Canada as of 2012.
The group is named for a 16th century leader, Jakob Hutter, who preached the tenets of pacifism and communal living. Nearly all property in a Hutterite colony is owned by the colony ― a practice that differentiates them from other rural religious communities, such as the Amish and Mennonites.
Their guiding doctrine comes from a verse in the New Testament. Acts 2:44 reads: “All the believers live together and have everything in common.”
Unlike the Amish, the Hutterites utilize various forms of modern technology. They generally sustain their communities through industrial agriculture, selling frozen meat, chicken, eggs, milk and vegetables to large local grocery chains.
Some also offer services in commercial construction and mechanics. Brody said a Hutterite man could build you a Mercedes and because every Hutterite woman is given a sewing machine when she marries ― the only possession she will ever own ― “any of them could get a job as a seamstress in Hollywood.”
Initially, while researching her book on ranchers, Brody didn’t pay much attention to the local Hutterites. “They were just these anachronistic people who wore brightly colored clothing and spoke with a funny sort of Germanic type of accent,” she said. “They were friendly but distant.”
But she took up an offer from some other area residents to introduce her. She did know that the Hutterite communities were insular, highly patriarchal and guided by strict religious tenets. Brody, who is not religious, wasn’t expecting to enjoy herself.
She eventually spent four years photographing the group and learning about their lives.
“For whatever reason ― maybe it’s the way I am or the way they are ― there was space made for me to come and do something which they don’t normally like people doing, which is taking pictures of and being with them,” she said.
Brody photographed three separate Hutterite colonies in Liberty County. Her work honors the many technical skills that allow the communes, which she said consisted of about 150 people each, to function. But more profoundly, it captures the relationships that develop when a community is simply too small to allow itself to become divided.
“I thought I had a sense of who Hutterites were,” Brody said. “Then as you get to know them better, you realize they’ve got this thing ― this little jewel that they pass on to each other, that we don’t have anymore.”
Brody described this “jewel” as “the ability to be together,” which she observed while spending time with the women in the colonies. Whether they personally liked each other or not, she said their faith called on them to “live together and have all things in common.”
It’s a principle the Hutterites are committed to living by, no matter how difficult a situation or personality they encounter.
“There are just destructive people ― in almost any community, you’ll find at least one,” Brody said. “So how do you handle that? Do you ostracize them? In a tiny community, can you afford to do that? No. So you learn to adjust and adjust and make space for that person to function.”
The Hutterite women accommodate one another’s individual differences in order to protect the health of the entire community. When a person is destructive or obnoxious or insolent ― either in personality or in reaction to the community’s rules ― the group adjusts their expectations. This creates a space for the disruptive person to function within the community and, perhaps, create a path to contentment they may not have otherwise found.
“When people started asking me about what I was doing there and what I was looking at, I realized that’s what I was looking at,” Brody said. “I was looking for a piece of the puzzle in me or in us, in general, that is missing.”
Tolerance is not the first thing one expects to find in a community that rejects almost everything outside itself. But when nothing from the outside world is allowed in, they have no choice but to cherish and protect each other.
“Part of what they came to understand was you don’t have to love everybody. You don’t even have to like them,” Brody said. “But you need to get along, and you need to help.”
“That’s a huge lesson this country has completely forgotten,” she added.
Below find a selection of photos from Brody’s portfolio, along with her thoughts on her time with the Hutterites and the lessons she believes they can teach us.
“I had all these messages coming to me about rural America and its importance, from the time I was 8 years old up until the present. I was interested almost immediately in how small rural economies operate and how small communities operate. If you live in large urban communities, they don’t operate, except in a snowstorm. We are so easily split asunder. We see a horrifying, graphic example of it right now in Washington, and we don’t seem to have any sense about the importance of community in structuring our lives.”
“They taught me so much about just being mindful that when there is a person right next to you who you don’t know, you might have a lot in common and you might have very little, but it’s possible to take a couple of minutes to just sort of slow down and not make the assumption that if they get something, you don’t get it. If they win, you lose. Everything that’s happening in this country now is so incredibly divisive. The Hutterites don’t vote; they don’t participate. But one of them said to me, ‘We really should now.’”
“They make everything they wear, except for underwear or shoes. If you look at the pictures, it looks like they’re all wearing different clothing. Until you look closely and you realize every apron is the same, every dirndl skirt is the same, every shirt is the same, every jacket is the same, every head covering is the same. So they express their personality in the pattern of the fabric, not in the design of the clothing. It’s a whole metaphor for them that they have these small things that differentiate themselves but they’re expected to conform on larger issues. If any Hutterite woman left there and offered themselves up as a seamstress, they could make a killing in Hollywood.”
“What surprised me most was how fearful they are of the outside world. They don’t need to be that fearful, but they are.”
“Some of the hardest work the men will do, but mostly the women do everything. They don’t slaughter the cattle, but the minute the cattle are slaughtered, they take over the butchering. They slaughter the ducks and the chickens themselves and the geese. So you might want to say to yourself, what is left? If all the women disappeared from the colony, it would take them probably five days to fall apart.”
“A lot of what they have in place relies on the women being certain types of people. The women will say to me, ’We’re going to vote on who is going to be the new head of the kitchen. I said, ‘Who’s going to vote?’ They said, ‘Oh, the men vote.’ I asked how the men know who to vote for. They said, ‘Well, we tell them who to vote for.’”
“One day one of the women asked me if I’d like to know what they were talking about. I said sure. These are women who range in age from maybe 20 to 80. They’ve lived together their whole lives, one way or another. They were talking about which scent they like better, Mr. Clean or Pinesol or something with lavender in it. I realized if you live in a dorm in college, you have that kind of relationship with somebody ― where the mundane becomes crucial and important. But in general, you don’t have that. When people started asking me about what I was doing there and what I was looking at, I realized that’s what I was looking at. I was looking for a piece of the puzzle in me or in us, in general, that is missing.”
“They’re pacifist, they’re communitarian. ... There are a gazillion people to take care of you and your kids. There are 7-year-old girls who are assigned to 5-month-old babies and they’re au pairs from the time they’re 6 or 7 years old. So you might drive in there and think of them, ‘Oh, I really couldn’t stand this, this is too much for me.’ And then you can’t let yourself leave at the end of the day because they’ve got this thing that you can’t quite describe and that you don’t have.”
“The women get up at 4 in the morning, they get their houses in order. They are constantly cleaning their houses. I don’t know what they’re cleaning. You could literally eat off the floor in any of those places.”
“One of the ministers said, ‘Well, you know in the old days we objected to the ideas of telephones and we survived that. Then we objected to the idea of mobile phones and we survived that. But I think the internet is different.’ And I said, ’You’re absolutely right. The internet is completely different.’ He said, ‘That really makes me worry. Bad things could happen.’ I said, ’But does that have to change your relationship to God?’”
A previous version of this article stated that Brody attended a Jewish summer camp. It was a farm camp.